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DeFranks: Hard Knocks shows pros are human too (Aug. 18)

Matthew DeFranks | Friday, August 17, 2012

It was my first HBO show. Before “The Newsroom,” before “Luck,” before “Boardwalk Empire,” I was watching “Hard Knocks.”

I watched when Antonio Cromartie tried to name all of his children. I watched as Carson Palmer praised an athletic trainer for his beautifully crafted Gatorade. So was it tough that the lockout a year ago robbed me of a season of “Hard Knocks”? Of course.

But when the announcement came down that “Hard Knocks” would be following my hometown Miami Dolphins, everything was forgiven. The makeup gift was okay, I guess.

At the time, the Dolphins were a far-below average team with a new coaching staff, no marketable stars, a flimsy fan base and clueless celebrity owners. Despite all signs pointing to this year’s show being a dud, there was no chance that I wasn’t going to watch religiously. “Hard Knocks” made Kansas City’s quarterback duel between Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle interesting, for God’s sake.

So when the Dolphins signed social media star, class clown and, oh yeah, receiver Chad Johnson, it reassured that the eighth season of the show would not lack firepower. And firepower he gave.

In the debut episode, Johnson made sounds that sounded like a perfect mix of birds chirping and hyenas howling – and not in a good way. He dropped profanity after profanity in a press conference okay only for HBO to air in its entirety. We even found out that his first date with his wife was at a McDonald’s.

Just days after the first episode aired, Johnson found himself in trouble – he had been arrested for domestic violence. The incident (which included his newlywed wife, a receipt for condoms and head butting) rocked the outspoken receiver. He was arrested, cut, dropped from a reality show and an endorsement deal in a matter of days.

But all I could think about was how “Hard Knocks” was going to cover it. Would they have some super-secret information about it? Would Johnson try to issue a national plea? Would they tiptoe around a sensitive and legally unresolved topic? I had no idea how it would pan out.

They decided to carve out the final 15 minutes of the second episode for the Johnson fiasco. They included news audio announcing his arrest, video footage of Johnson in handcuffs and, most interestingly, the meeting between Dolphins coach Joe Philbin (who is a clone of Dr. Robert Doback from “Step Brothers”) and the now-disgraced Johnson.

And during the long, painful, drawn-out meeting between Philbin and Johnson, I felt something strange: sympathy. Johnson (who may or may not be innocent) was being crucified on premium television. His job was lost and reputation tarnished – all while America inched closer to the edge of its collective seat with a fistful of popcorn in both hands.

Am I defending Johnson or his actions? Absolutely not. Do I think Johnson’s release was justified? Yes, given his streaky and outlandish behavior, diminished performance and the needed emergence of long-term options at wide receiver, the Dolphins were well within their right to cut him loose.

But no one should be subject to a televised firing, especially one in which the head coach dances around the subject and delays the announcement.

Interestingly enough, “Hard Knocks” did exactly what it was planning to do: it made pro football players people. It made you feel like you could relate to them.

It made you think that Ryan Tannehill’s dogs were just like yours, that David Garrard’s water sports skills were fit for Miami, that Matt Moore’s devotion to “The Bachelorette” was funny and not embarrassing.

So when 10 p.m. rolls around next Tuesday after the first day of school and I sit down on the futon in front of an HBO-less television, I will stay away from Twitter and wait. I will wait to find out what Reggie Bush eats for breakfast, what the next rookie hazing will be or what Les Brown does at an alligator farm.

It will be worth it.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu
The views expressed in this Sports Authority column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.